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Hobbes’s Geometrical Optics

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Since Euclid, optics has been considered a geometrical science, which Aristotle defines as a “mixed” mathematical science. Hobbes follows this tradition and clearly places optics among physical sciences. However, modern scholars point to a confusion between geometry and physics and do not seem to agree about the way Hobbes mixes both sciences. In this paper, I return to this alleged confusion and intend to emphasize the peculiarity of Hobbes’s geometrical optics. This paper suggests that Hobbes’s conception of geometrical optics, as a mixed mathematical science, greatly differs from Descartes’s one, mainly because they do not share the same “mechanical conception of nature.” I will argue that Hobbes and Descartes also have in common the quest for a different kind of geometry for their optics, different from that of the Ancients. I will show that this departure is not recent since Hobbes’s approach is already evident in 1636, when he judges the demonstrations of his contemporary friends, Claude Mydorge and Walter Warner. Finally the paper broadly suggests what is noteworthy in Hobbes’s optics, that is, the importance of the idea of force in his mechanics, although he was not able to conceptualize it in other terms than “quickness.”

Affiliations: 1: Research Associate, IHRIM (Institut d’histoire des représentations et des idées dans les modernités), UMR 5317 - ENS de Lyon, 15 parvis René Descartes – BP 7000 – 69342 Lyon cedex 07


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